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E-sports league admits employee installed malware to ‘mine’ Bitcoins

Players cheat all the time in online video games. To prevent that, some join semi-professional e-sports leagues, like the E-sports Entertainment Association (ESEA). The ESEA is a centralized league that forces all players to install its proprietary software that prevents players from cheating in popular competitive titles like Counter-Strike and League of Legends.

The ESEA is the referees of the Internet. Ah, but who referees the referees?

That question came up when one member of the ESEA discovered that one of the company’s employees covertly installed software to mine Bitcoins, as PC Games N reported earlier today. That player, Enjoy ESEA Sheep, reported to other members that he discovered ESEA’s software was using his GPU to run intense programs even when he wasn’t playing games.

“On April 13, 2013, after the initial tests, ESEA informed those involved in the test that we were killing the project and they should stop using the beta test,” ESEA co-founder C.L. Torbull said in a statement to members. It came to our attention last night, however, that an employee who was involved in the test has been using the test code for his own personal gain since April 13, 2013.”

Torbull says this employee acted alone without authorization from the company but using company assets.

“We are extremely disappointed and concerned by the unauthorized actions of this individual,” wrote Torbull. “As of this morning, ESEA has made sure that all Bitcoin mining has stopped. ESEA is also in the process of taking all necessary steps internally to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”

Bitcoins are a virtual currency that some online merchants accept as payment. It’s more like gold than cash, since its designers created Bitcoins with a finite number of units. That makes each Bitcoin extremely valuable. Currently, one Bitcoin trades for nearly $140.

Bitcoin transactions require confirmation. That means each person trying to pay for something in Bitcoins must pay a transaction fee to outside individuals that run Bitcoin server nodes, often referred to as Bitcoin miners. This authentication process requires those servers to decode an incredibly complex mathematical encryption. These encryptions require serious processing power, but the more a person decrypts, the more Bitcoins they stand to earn.

The company mined a total of $3,713.55 worth of Bitcoins before players noticed what was going on.

Earlier this afternoon, the ESEA posted a statement about the fiasco. The company admitted it was testing Bitcoin mining as a potential new product for its members. As part of those tests, it installed the code on to two admin accounts. Eventually, ESEA executives decided against implementing the code on a wide scale.

This sort of networked Bitcoin mining happens legitimately all the time. Many people can network their PCs together to decode the Bitcoin data, and then they all share the digital spoils. The ESEA was covertly worming this software on its customers’ computers, which is a major breach of trust.

In an effort to make amends with its community, ESEA will donate $7,427.10 to the American Cancer Society. That includes the $3,713.55 from the Bitcoin funds and a matching contribution from the ESEA itself. Additionally, the company will also increase the prize pot for its upcoming competitive season by $3,713.55.

This is all very different from what ESEA’s other co-founder, Eric Thunberg, was telling users last night. He wrote on the  company’s forums that the Bitcoin mining software started as a joke.

“Back toward the end of march, as [Bitcoin] was skyrocketing, [fellow ESEA employee Sean "Jaguar" H.] and I were talking about how cool it would be if we could use massive amounts of GPUs logged into the client to mine [Bitcoins],” he wrote. “We went back and forth about it, considered doing something for April Fools’ — didn’t get it done in time — and eventually elected to put some test code in the client and try it on a few admin accounts, ours included.”

Thunberg said they decided to pull the plug on the idea to avoid the “drama. He guessed that the code must have accidentally slipped out during a server restart. He promised to add the acquired money to the upcoming tournament, but he didn’t say much else.

Angry ESEA members didn’t let it go. Some even claimed that the mining program kept their GPUs running at dangerous temperatures for days. Many are claiming their video cards are now suffering errors due to heat damage.

Thunberg didn’t respond to those claims, but Torbull invited anyone who experienced physical damage to open a support ticket.

We’ve reached out to Torbull, who seems in charge of the situation, about who it was that initiated the Bitcoin-mining tool and whether he plans to press charges. We will update with his response.

As for the future of the ESEA, it’s clear this situation had the potential to do a lot of damage to the company’s reputation. Torbull seems to finally be getting out in front of it.

“As a team, we work hard to create cool things and we’ve worked even harder to consistently do things the right way,” wrote Torbull. “While it’s incredibly disturbing and disappointing that this happened, we’re committed to improving ourselves and rebuilding trust with our community.”


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